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Switzerland's fleet going strong on the high seas

The M/V Corviglia is key part of the country's oft-lampooned merchant navy.

(www.swiss-ships.ch)

Landlocked Switzerland has reaffirmed its commitment to its merchant navy for at least another decade.

Set up in 1941 to secure supplies during the Second World War, the maritime fleet has become a permanent fixture in its home port of Basel. And it will continue to be so for at least the next ten years, after parliament last week renewed its financial guarantees.

The decision means that the government stands ready to stump up SFr600 million ($382 million) should the 24 Swiss-registered vessels currently operating on the high seas run aground.

The risk is minimal for the federal authorities - since the introduction of the scheme in 1948, the government has never incurred any losses.

Small but important

Although it makes up less than 0.1 per cent of the world's total merchant shipping tonnage, the Swiss fleet has the crucial task of ensuring strategic supplies of food and fuel and of guaranteeing some measure of independence.

"It is a safeguard in times of supply crisis for national support. A small fleet could be decisive for our logistical system," says Kurt Streiff of the Federal Office for National Economic Supply.

He adds that the existence of a maritime fleet is a key factor in a global trading system, in particular, for Switzerland's export-oriented machine and engineering industry.

"About 90 per cent of all goods that are traded in the world go by sea transport at some stage. That's applicable also for Swiss exports as well as imports," Streiff told swissinfo.

Home port in Basel

The port of registry of the merchant navy is the Swiss city of Basel, situated on the river Rhine. This is in recognition of Switzerland's long-standing tradition of navigation on the Rhine, which springs up in the Swiss Alps reaches the North Sea at Rotterdam in the Netherlands.

The merchant navy does not make the news headlines very often even in Switzerland, although the fleet celebrated its 60th anniversary last year.

The merchant navy of today consists of 24 vessels, run by five private shipping owners, and the fleet enjoys a very good reputation as being reliable and secure.

But there are less than a dozen sailors of Swiss nationality employed on vessels flying the flag of their own country. Their numbers have fallen dramatically in the past four decades - 40 years ago some 600 Swiss were working on the high seas.

It is believed that the reasons for the drop in numbers are worsening working conditions and comparatively low wages.

by Jonathan Summerton and Urs Geiser

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